In the Sonoran Desert, a lesson already learned

  • Malcolm Wells

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Twenty years ago, cattle roamed the open range near here, and the only sound during the night, besides coyotes, was a car bumping over a cattleguard on north Scottsdale Road. The metal strips hummed like a stroked guitar in the stillness of a desert night. Now the cattleguard is gone, and the howls of coyotes have been replaced by the wail of police sirens.

The high Sonoran Desert long resisted settlement for a simple reason - there was no water. Some residents hauled water; some still do.

We engaged the services of a dowser to locate water. The centuries-old practice, known as dowsing, witching or divining, is a gift and an art of obtaining information through a divining rod. Jack Parker cut a small, forked branch from a greasewood bush. He lightly held the twigs on the forked end between his thumb and forefinger with the stick parallel to the ground. "Dig right there!" he announced as the branch slanted toward the earth. He had located the only spot on 10 acres where we could tap into the underground aquifer.

Stories abound among elder Hispanics and Tohono O'odham Indians about La Corua - a large snake in the Sonoran desert that protects water sources. In all the stories, when the snake was killed, the spring dried up.

A number of rattlesnakes met their demise when we first came here 18 years ago from the Pacific Northwest. Now that we are aware that snakes are our protectors, we live peaceably together. Was one of those snakes our water serpent? Our well had been producing 8-10 gallons/minute when - you guessed it - the well went dry. Even though we no longer kill snakes, somewhere along the way we lost our water.

A 1996 study of the Carefree/Cave Creek aquifer by a group called the Foothills Foundation included the alarming statement that the towns not far from Phoenix face a crisis: "It is conceivable that the aquifer might be essentially depleted within 10 years or at least have the well capacities reduced so severely that it would not be sufficient to serve the present needs of the area." The east side of the aquifer has already been drained to irrigate north Scottsdale's golf courses, and by 1999, keeping the greens green will require an estimated 20 million gallons/day, up from 8 million gallons in 1995. How can Scottsdale consider even more golf courses and development in this arid land?

There comes a time when we must say when. The glass is half-empty, not half-full. It is incongruous that Scottsdale approves 1,000-plus homes directly above the nearly depleted aquifer and considers more golf courses whose water will have to be imported from somewhere else. Does Arizona's Department of Water Resources notice its optimism and overcommitment in issuing 100-year "Certificates of Assured Water Supply" to new subdivisions?

One hundred years of assured water is but a moment in a desert. This is no longer the Old West where the skies are not cloudy all day; in the New West our air is no longer clear, and a diminishing water supply is a critical issue.

I think about the people who have gone before us. When the Ancient Ones migrated into the Sonoran Desert, built canals and terraced land for agriculture, there were springs and plentiful wild food. The new arrivals were named Hohokam by the local O'odham people. The word means "all used up."

By A.D. 1200, the Hohokam had expanded their water system to over 600 miles of canals created with stone tools. Drought followed by major floods between 1356 and 1382 are thought to have destroyed the canal system, though some archaeologists say it was more that the resources were all used up. This sounds all too familiar.

At the end of the 20th century, residential development is ravaging what remains of the natural high Sonoran Desert. Water comes by canals over long distances, and we see the signs of too many people much in the same way as the Hohokam who, centuries ago, overturned their pottery bowls and walked away.

Sunnie Empie is a freelance writer in Scottsdale, Arizona.